“We have done our level best (to disenfranchise Blacks). We have scratched our heads to find out how we could eliminate the last one of them. We stuffed ballot boxes. We shot them. We are not ashamed of It . . . Blacks must remain subordinate or be exterminated.”
The Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified on February 3, 1870, contained these words: “the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” This gave the right to the ballot to large numbers of Black men for the first time in American history. The amendment omitted mention of gender. Women would have to wait until 1920. But both Black men and Black women would have to fight until the 1960s for full, fair, and effective enfranchisement to even begin.
The advent of the Black vote was met with unfathomable dread by most Whites including many members of President Lincoln’s own party which stood to benefit from thousands of new Black Republican voters. Before his assassination, Lincoln had come around to the idea that a limited number of Blacks might be eligible to vote.
White America had initially seen emancipation and the end of the Civil War as the climax of what Governor Bradford of Maryland had once called “. . . these devilish nigger difficulties.” But General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox revealed an astonishing level of hatred and disgust toward Yankees in general and Black folks in particular. A Tarheel State planter promised that he and other Whites “will never get along with the free Negroes” because they were an “inferior race.” In Mississippi, a planter predicted that “these niggers will all be slaves again in twelve months.”
Their purpose as one ex-rebel explained was to make certain that the “ex-slave was not a free man; he was a free Negro.”
If re-enslavement could not be achieved, southern leaders believed, then a state of being as close to slavery must be forced upon African Americans. They found an ally in President Andrew Johnson who told a visitor to the White House: “White men must rule the South.” Beginning in 1865 and 1866, all-White Southern legislatures started passing restrictive laws collectively known as “black codes.” Their purpose as one ex-rebel explained was to make certain that the “ex-slave was not a free man; he was a free Negro.”
As the history book, “America: A Narrative History” makes clear: “the black codes differed from state to state, but their purpose was clear: to restore white supremacy. While Black marriages were recognized, African Americans could not vote, serve on juries, testify against whites, or attend public schools. They could not own farmland in Mississippi or city property in South Carolina.
In Alabama, they could not own guns. In Mississippi, every Black male over the age of eighteen had to be apprenticed to a White, preferably a former slave owner. Virtually all black codes required that adult freed slaves sign annual labor contracts. Otherwise, they would be jailed as ‘vagrants.’ If they could not pay the vagrancy fine--and most could not--they were forced to work for Whites as convict laborers.”
As African Americans defiantly protested these measures and continued to test the limits of their newly won freedom, blood soaked anti-Black violence both buttressed and superseded the black codes. There was no form of murder too vile. No insult too subtle. No degradation too gross. No type of terror too great not to be employed. In 1866, mobs of ex-confederates killed or assaulted hundreds of African Americans in Memphis and New Orleans during race riots.
A Tennessee newspaper bragged about the slaughter: “The Negroes now know, to their sorrow, that it is best not to arouse the fury of the White man.” Despite the presence of federal troops in the South and occasional friendly congressional legislation in Washington, the noose, the torch, the whip, the pistol, and the knife reigned supreme.
There were many other race riots and massacres. ln the Lone Star State, a white farmer threatened his former bondsman. His freedom, he was told would do him “damned little good...as I intend to shoot you.” And the White man shot him. In July, 1866, three years after the Emancipation Proclamation, a Black woman in Clinch County, Georgia, was apprehended and given 65 lashes for “using abusive language” during a dispute with a White woman.
But no matter the level of wanton cruelty or the twisted insidiousness of the racially charged laws, nothing seemed to be able to completely stop the Black pursuit of land, education, and the ballot. Looking over this torn landscape of violence and intimidation, Frederick Douglass concluded that, “slavery is not abolished until the Black man has the vote.”
Their efforts to improve southern life through establishing public school systems, redistributing land, and equalizing laws, were seen as efforts to topple the house of white supremacy.
And there were reasons for hope. In December, 1866, Congress passed a bill giving Black males the right to vote in Washington, D.C. This was done despite popular referendums among White males in the city and in Georgetown, DC showing overwhelming disapproval. Massachusetts elected two Blacks to its state legislature.
Repelled by continued southern lawlessness and defiance, progressive Republicans in Congress proposed a 14th amendment to the Constitution making African Americans citizens. The following year, progressive members were able to pass, over increasing opposition from congressional foes and President Johnson, a series of “Reconstruction Acts,” which among other things, shifted the responsibility for registering and protecting Black voters to the federal army.
Majorities of registered Black voters began to appear in several states and counties throughout the South. Pro-Republican Union League political clubs began organizing among African American voters. About 600 African Americans, most of whom were formerly enslaved, began serving in southern state legislatures. Black senators and congressmen took seats in and walked the halls of the U.S. Capitol for the first time.
White southerners were disgusted at the election of African American politicians. Even though, as one Black member of the Mississippi state constitutional convention explained, “All we ask is justice and to be treated as human beings.”
Their efforts to improve southern life through establishing public school systems, redistributing land, and equalizing laws, were seen as efforts to topple the house of white supremacy. Southern Democrats alleged that progressives or “Radicals” in Congress were attempting to “organize a hell in the South” by placing “the Caucasian race” under the rule of “their own Negroes.” Undying enmity was sworn toward any efforts to equalize southern life between the races that was not controlled by Whites, particularly politics.
What followed would be decades of Black voter suppression employing such “legal” means as grandfather clauses, poll taxes, literacy tests, property requirements, and long residency requirements constituting effective disenfranchisement. All of it undergirded by Jim Crow segregation and the threat of constant racial terror and violence. The nation, including the Republican Party, turned its back on the very people who had helped win the Civil War and left them for a hostile South to deal with alone.